Alien Encounters as Conversion Parables

An awestruck Jodie Foster.

Over Christmas, before I joined Conversion Narratives, I was familiarising myself with the blog and seeing what I’d be getting myself into (as one does) whilst watching the 1997 film Contact. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Contact is a sci-fi film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name from 1985. The film tracks the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings with a view of reflecting upon the cultural conflict between science and religion, the nature of belief and of faith. Although I will not give away the plot too freely, during the course of the film, its protagonist Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), a confirmed religious sceptic, experiences her own form of ‘conversion’. This inevitably leads to the truth of her own narrative being questioned and her faith tested.

As I was reading Peter Mazur’s post on Augustine it struck me – and bear with me on this one – that there is a kind of correspondence between the conversion narratives and spiritual journeys under examination by our research project and the narratives of alien encounter films, tenuous though it may be. Continue reading

Reflections of an Intern: Greetings!

Hello! My name’s Hannah, and I have been the “intern” for the Conversion Narratives project for about six weeks. I’ll be posting to the blog every so often in order to offer up my reflections on aspects of the project, plus any thoughts and tidbits that might be of interest here.

I became involved with Conversion Narratives as part of a placement opportunity offered by York’s M.A. in Public History. Specifically, my role is to assist in the creation of an exhibition, called Virtue & Vice, to be held at Hardwick Hall from March 25th 2013 (though I am always on hand for various other tasks, such as decimating chocolate maps!). The primary aim of the exhibition is to re-examine Hardwick’s fantastic collection in order to place the Hall and its builder, Bess of Hardwick, within the context of the huge cultural shifts underway during the course of the early modern period.

For the past few weeks the issue foremost in my mind has been how the exhibition and app will balance academic research with the interests of both Hardwick and the public. One of its key aims, I think, is to surprise people. When visitors come to the Hall, on its lonely hillside outside Chesterfield, the last thing they expect to find are connections to significant religious, economic and cultural changes occuring not only across early modern England, but also across the world. So far, as can be seen elsewhere on this blog, the research for Conversion Narratives has had a global outlook. Conveying this sense of international change in a fairly isolated, localised setting is a challenge, but also an exciting opportunity to impact upon visitors’ perceptions of the Hall and the age in which Bess of Hardwick lived.

When drafting texts for the exhibition panels and the app, the impulse is to share everything you know! Yet, there are practical considerations. How will the text look on a panel? Will it draw the eye after walking through the rest of the house? What interests visitors most, and what do they dislike? We learned, for example, that although generally, visitors to Hardwick don’t like dates within exhibition texts, they do love a good timeline! The text must be punchy and keep the focus of the exhibition on Hardwick’s story, yet it must have a new perspective.

These few brief thoughts are an introduction to the reflections I’ll be posting here over the next few weeks as the exhibition takes shape. Watch this space for musings on matters such as how Hilary Mantel influenced our document choices, breaking down the “Hardwick barrier” and what makes a really good app!

An Alpine Turncoat


Or, ‘exit, assassinated by a bear…’

The alpine region of the Grisons (the modern Swiss canton of Graubünden) was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a region of supreme strategic importance, a key passage of through the mountains between Italy and Northern and Central Europe. It formed a part of the Spanish Road, the caravan that led between the fortress-city of Milan and the Low Countries, where from 1572 until 1648, with a handful of interruptions, the armies of Spain were engaged in war with the Dutch Republic. For this entire period, the Valtelline pass was the main route for troops and provisions from Iberia to the North, since most of the alternatives, whether overland or by sea, were blocked by enemy troops and ships. Continue reading